Does gerrymandering cause polarization?

I used to think so, but not any more:

We assess whether there is a strong causal relationship
between congressional districting and polarization. We find very little
evidence for such a link. First, we show that congressional
polarization is primarily a function of the differences in how
Democrats and Republicans represent the same districts rather than a
function of which districts each party represents or the distribution
of constituency preferences. Second, we conduct simulations to gauge
the level of polarization under various “neutral” districting
procedures. We find that the actual levels of polarization are not much
higher than those produced by the simulations. We do find that
gerrymandering has increased the Republican seat share in the House;
however, this increase is not an important source of polarization.

That’s from the very accomplished Howard Rosenthal.  The paper is here, hat tip to BookForum

So what does cause voter polarization?  Here is a counterintuitive hypothesis: political extremists are most active when they fear that the extremists from the other side might win.  Each candidate requires those extremists for support and resources, and when a candidate wins he or she then must polarize to some extent.  If you think of the extremists as motivated by fear of the other side, in a lopsided district they are more likely to stay at home and keep their mouths shut, thereby allowing the candidate to straddle the center.  It’s a close race that brings out the partisans and gives them some measure of ex post control.

Might this be true?

We examine DW-Nominate scores for members of the House of Representatives who served from 1993 through 2000. The most politically extreme members tended to represent politically competitive districts, a result at odds with traditional Downsian expectations.

File this one under "I’m still fundamentally confused."

Comments

File this one under "I'm still fundamentally confused." Well, that's encouraging for those of us who are often confused. :)

The hypothesis seems very plausible to me. You can assume that whoever wins, a set of dominant policy preferences in a region will ensure that you are not threatened on your hot button issues. When it is competitive, which is to say that the candidates with plausible chances to win can come from opposite points of view, the difference can be perceived as 'more dead babies' or 'loss of body integrity'. The fringes have to fight harder in that situation, don't they?

I didn't read the paper or anything, but I wanted to distinguish between voter polarization and representative polarization. I think congress is more polarized than our people. And gerrymandering certainly would help congress become more polarized.

The peer effects that might make voters more polarized because they live together aren't changed by gerrymandering, of course. Redrawing political boundaries doesn't give an individual new neighbors.

Shorter: tactical polarization.

I don't care about facts :) The theory of gerrymandering says that it's manipulated for biased outcomes. I'm still in favor of neutral district lines...

My limited experience volunteering for campaigns makes me think that in competitive races, candidates lean more heavily on their base... and when they lean more heavily on their base, the base has more sway over them.

So that would argue for why competitive races tend to produce more "extreme" candidates.

The hypothesis you call "counterintuitive" is not so at all. Eveny political partisan believes that he is more "moderate" and closer to the "center" than his opponents. For example, just today I read: "On a scale of 1 to 10, it's like the GOP is moving right from 8 to 9 while the Democratic party is moving left from 4 to 3.5."

Extremists aren't afraid of other extremists; They are afraid of ordinary people.

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